Liverpool displayed mental grit and physical guts to fight back from a goal down to beat Stoke City 2-1 in the Premier League on Saturday.
‘Unexpected’ could very well have been the buzzword of the afternoon, as manager Jürgen Klopp decided to omit first team stars Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho from a starting line-up that was always going to be weakened by injuries to key men the shape of Sadio Mané, Adam Lallana and captain Jordan Henderson.
Having lost three league games on the spin, Stoke made a determined start to the game at the Bet365 Stadium and were clearly encouraged by an opener by winger Xherdan Shaqiri that was ruled out for offside.
The Potters kept their opponents on the back foot for most of the first half and their efforts paid dividends just before the half-time interval, as striker Jon Walters headed them into the lead.
Thankfully for Liverpool, Klopp called upon two of his best players immediately as Firmino and Coutinho came on for the second half to immediately rescue the Reds from what would’ve been another disappointing result. The latter scored the equaliser in the 71st minute and there was no looking back as just a minute later his Brazilian compatriot put Liverpool in the lead in some style.
Firmino’s goal was enough to seal the win for his side, keeping the Reds in third place on the table, as their chase for a place in the Champions’ League continues.
Help comes from Brazil as home-grown youngsters struggle
Starting with Liverpool academy youngsters Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn in his line-up was always going to be a huge risk by Jürgen Klopp.
Sure, the boys have some first-team experience, in fact, this was Alexander-Arnold’s second ever start in the Premier League, however, considering what is currently at stake in the Reds’ season and that this was indeed one of England’s most brutal grounds, it was more blind faith than it was reasonable.
The two youngsters, alongside another in striker Divock Origi, had the expectations of the travelling faithful on their shoulders and each, along with the rest of the Liverpool side, struggled in the first half, as no shots on target were registered at half-time and chance creation was little compared to the number of times Stoke overpowered them in key areas.
Inspiration was needed and as has so often been the case this season, it was provided by the Brazilians Firmino and Coutinho, whose presence in the side lifted Klopp’s men.
The pair’s goals were accompanied by some strong performances, as they each responded to Stoke’s physicality with their intelligent movement, vision and clinical execution on the ball.
Still, it would be devastatingly harsh to give them, as substitutes, all the glory as there was another in Daniel Sturridge. The Englishman has always been credited for his goals, however, on many occasions his presence on the pitch alone is worthy of praise, as he proved at the Bet365 Stadium that his excellent movement will always be key to giving defenders a thing or two to think about – even if he’s not involved in attacks that lead to goals.
Reds are still culpable of small-occasion blues
It remains the one fact that baffles plenty connected with Liverpool: the Reds are too often disappointing against sides from the bottom-half of the league table.
Against their main rivals, lightning-quick starts are almost a guaranteed fixture as their hunger and burning determination for victory is always on show, however, against the so-called smaller sides you would swear they left it all in the tunnel before heading out to the pitch.
In fact, this hunger and burning determination was all opponents Stoke had for the most part of the game. More especially in the first half, the Potters were out-muscling Liverpool out of almost every challenge, they seemed to think and react faster than their day-dreaming opponents and that the Reds’ defence was yet again showing signs of weakness not only made every Kopite sick, it was a sight for the sore eyes of the Stoke attackers.
Klopp’s change in shape may not have helped things either. The German boss switched to a rare 3-4-3 formation and a number of players were assigned to unusual positions, and yet, whether the change in shape was due to excessive injuries suffered or his desire to set his side up to defend better still remains contentious.
What is certain is that it didn’t work in the team’s favour and Liverpool – for the umpteenth time – need to get rid of their soft-core in games they are expected to win, as there are plenty of them from now until the end of the season.
Credit where it’s due for Mignolet
It really is no secret that part of being a top class goalkeeper is having an equally top class defence.
Many goalkeepers in world football have and are still losing their right to claiming top class status because on more occasions than one, the back four in front of them lets them down.
Like it or not Liverpool fans, Simon Mignolet falls into that category.
On a number of occasions this season and in the past, The Belgian has put in some decent displays between the sticks, making some incredible saves (the type when made by David De Gea the entire Premier League somehow goes into meltdown) however, they have each been undermined by an all too poor defence.
Against Stoke, he was excellent in making two crucial saves, first to deny Charlie Adam from close range after the half-time interval and second to keep out Saido Berahino almost immediately after Liverpool had taken the lead.
The Belgian certainly deserves credit for an overall strong performance in this game but sadly it is credit that just won’t stick because of a poor defence that almost always manages to ensure that every single time he concedes a goal this season, it is down to their mistakes or lack of strong judgement (i.e Walters’ opening goal).
Can makes timely arrival to the battle
Disappointingly enough, there were no outstanding performers for Liverpool in the first half of the match at Stoke, but the second half thankfully saw a number of warriors come to the battle.
Enter Emre Can, one of Klopp’s warriors in that second half.
It’s not the first time the young German is being mentioned in our post-match pieces over the past few weeks and that is because he has entered an impressive run of form that has consistently seen him dominate the proceedings in midfield and the second half at the Bet365 was no different.
Can responded to Stoke’s physical dominance in midfield by being a physical menace himself. The German constantly positioned himself well to win the ball back and going forward he displayed an incredible amount of energy, playing a vital role in Liverpool’s equalizing goal.
There’s nothing more fans can ask for than for their player’s form to only get better, so with many more physical battles coming Liverpool’s way before the end of the season, Can should only look to do better in each one.
More of the same required in push for top-four
Before this match, manager Klopp called for his Liverpool side to be more like Premier League leaders Chelsea, in grinding out wins from matches they don’t particularly look their best in.
The response was pleasing and much welcomed as character and courage was shown in the Reds’ fight back from a goal down to win the tough match against Stoke, which saw them pick up three precious points.
Liverpool’s final run-in includes fixtures against West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace, Middlesbrough and so on.
None of these teams will mind bringing a physical battle to each of their encounters against the Reds. None of them will mind sitting back in order to frustrate their opponents to a draw, therefore it is extremely vital to Liverpool’s top-four hopes that the Reds show that grit and desire to win these games, coupled with some clinical application, as it’s sure to be a tough end to the season.